Reactive chemical incidents have killed 105 people and caused serious harm in at least 170 cases since 1980, according to John Murphy, a chemical incident investigator of the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB).
Murphy emphasized that these figures are preliminary and the numbers could change as research proceeds. He spoke soon after delivering an April 24 presentation of his findings at the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) spring national meeting in Houston, Texas.
Murphy is leading the CSB''s investigation into reactive chemicals, believed to be the first-ever systematic look at the problem in the United States.
The special hazard investigation into a generic safety problem is a first for the CSB, which has until now devoted itself to trying to complete investigations of individual chemical incidents.
The agency faced extinction last year as infighting, management problems and the failure to complete incident investigations led to a loss of support on Capitol Hill.
There are some signs of a turnaround this year, with the completion of three accident investigation reports, the launching of two new incident investigations, and the hazard investigation into reactive chemicals.
CSB recently asked Congress for a $9 million appropriation, a $1.5 million increase due in part to its expanding staff.
Stakeholders have criticized CSB for trying too often to go it alone, and the agency appears eager to use the hazard investigation into reactive chemicals as an opportunity to make alliances with other government agencies and interested parties.
Murphy ticked off an alphabet soup of government, industry, labor, professional and citizens'' groups that have been involved in the investigation, including OSHA, EPA, AIChE, the American Chemistry Council, Paper, Allied-Chemical, and Energy Workers, Int. (PACE), the Sierra Club and the Working Group on Community Right to Know.
"I think we made a special effort to work with stakeholders," Murphy said. "We want to make sure we are balanced and that all parties have their input."
Calls to many of these groups confirmed they are indeed participating in the investigation process.
Doing a hazard investigation on reactive chemicals was one of the recommendations that came from the CSB''s investigation of the April 8, 1998, explosion and fire at the Morton International plant in Paterson, N.J. The objectives of the investigation are to:
- Determine the impact of reactive chemical incidents;
- Examine how industry, OSHA, and EPA currently address reactive chemical hazards;
- Determine the possible differences between the ways large and small companies manage these hazards;
- Develop recommendations for reducing the number and severity of reactive chemical incidents.
Right now reactive chemicals are regulated through OSHA''s Process Safety Management regulations and EPA''s Risk Management Program. The hazard investigation will evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of existing regulations in terms of reactive chemical hazards.
One of the difficulties of regulating reactive chemicals is that there is no widely accepted definition of what a reactive chemical is. As a result, many observers believe it is counter-productive to develop a list of reactive chemicals, as OSHA currently does, because such a list will inevitably be incomplete.
CSB does not define reactive chemicals, instead relying upon a definition of a reactive chemical incident: "A sudden event involving an uncontrolled chemical reaction with significant increases in temperature, pressure, and/or gas evolution that has the potential to or has caused serious harm to people, property or the environment."
Prior to issuing its final report, Murphy said CSB plans to have a safety hearing in Washington, D.C., that is tentatively scheduled for Sept. 13.
The hearing will be open to public in the hope that stakeholder input will improve the agency''s final report on reactive chemicals.
by James Nash